From show creator Kyle Long and executive producer/director Anthony Hemingway, the USA Network series Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. is a 10-episode scripted true crime limited series about the dual police investigations of Detective Greg Kading (Josh Duhamel) in 2006 and Detective Russell Poole (Jimmi Simpson) in 1997 into the murders of rap legends Tupac Shakur (Marcc Rose) and Christopher Wallace, aka The Notorious B.I.G. (Wavyy Jonez). The series also goes much deeper than the controversial killings and salacious headlines, as it explores the complicated friendship between the two men, looking for truth behind the conspiracies.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Jimmi Simpson talked about what drew him to Unsolved, the humanity that Kyle Long and Anthony Hemingway bring to this project, how his performance as Russell Poole evolved, why Poole became so obsessed with these cases, why these cases are still unsolved and unresolved, what he hopes viewers get from seeing this series, and whether he thinks there will ever be any resolution. He also talked about being a part of the HBO series Westworld, not knowing what he was getting himself into when he auditioned, how he approached his character in Season 1, and the reaction that fans will have to Season 2.
Collider: When the possibility of Unsolved came your way, did you have any reservations, initially?
JIMMI SIMPSON: I plead ignorance, as the key to a lot of my good decisions. I auditioned for Westworld, thinking it was gonna be a knock-off spoof. Thank god, I didn’t know Anthony Hopkins was starring in it. With Unsolved, I knew the hits of Biggie and Tupac, but I didn’t really know much of anything. I certainly didn’t know who Russell Poole was. I had been working for a year and a half straight, and I’d been blessed with these projects that I really cared about and believed in and would watch myself, and I had just said to my agent and manager, since we have a very thin window of options here, let’s try to choose things that mean something for a minute, and then I’ll do silly stuff. And then, a week later, Unsolved came across. I read it and I was so struck by the writing. I was like, “Oh, man, I think the next beautiful project is already here.”
And then, I saw that Anthony Hemingway was attached as a director, and there’s no way I wouldn’t work with him. I had worked with him on The Newsroom on one episode, and it was a revelation of what a director can offer on a television set. I went and had breakfast with Anthony and (show creator) Kyle [Long]. I always assume I’m trying to pitch myself, no matter what, and I think they were trying to pitch themselves to me. It was just three sweet met, pitching each other to each other, and I was sold, definitely. Once I signed the contract, I met with them again at their offices and they were like, “How do you feel about following Johnny Depp?” I was like, “What do you mean?” And they were like, “He’s playing Russell Poole in the feature.” I was like, “What?! I have to read the trades more often. I had no idea!” My choices come from the heart. It’s about how it makes me feel. This instantly made me feel good, so I instantly agreed to it, especially because Anthony Hemingway was attached. And then, I met Kyle Long and he’s one of those lovely, kind of rare humans in Hollywood. It was just right on.
What most interested you about this story and the way that it’s been told in this series?
SIMPSON: I’m stunned by how Kyle Long was able to write this story in a way that was so fair and so balanced, and then Anthony Hemingway was able to take that material and direct it in a way that just takes you to the moon. No one has really pulled that off yet. I’m just impressed by what these men have done. I can’t believe I got to be a part of it. What we’re doing is providing you with more information, fairly, than anyone ever has. What you’re gonna be presented with, at the end of the show, is this perfectly drawn picture of everything that happened. And then, the audience will be like, “Why has nothing happened?!” We’re not the court system. We’re not saying, “This is what is . . .” We’re saying, “These are the facts.” No one has given all of the information, from all sides, this clearly before. I think what makes it so consuming is that it’s an amazing cop show. You can see the glint in this young man’s eye. Tupac was 25. It’s stunning that you’re not only drawn into the narrative, but with every moment, you’re like, “This happened,” and it was only 20 years ago.
What made you want to play Russell Poole?
SIMPSON: Once I signed on, I realized that this man is iconic, as someone who questioned the LAPD, after being such a staunch believer in the system of the force. I’d never played a role that was so laser-focused and so down to business. I noticed in the pilot that he just doesn’t respond to jokes. He’s never part of the laugh. I’m so used to being part of the laugh. At the first read-through, I imbued him with all of these characteristics that I thought would make him more interesting and I got all of this weirdly positive feedback. Even the network said, “That’s such a great read,” but I hadn’t heard from Anthony Hemingway. We were finally in the same space, five days later, and I said, “You know, that was just a rough sketch for the read-through. I’d love some guidance, based on what you saw.” He knows that I want a director that pulls no punches, so that we can get to the truth faster. He just paused and said, “Don’t make him weird.” My heart froze because I thought that was gonna be my way in. I was like, “Wait a minute, why would you hire me, if you don’t want him to be weird? I don’t understand! What am I supposed to do?” Every day of the pilot was this grueling attempt to try to execute this completely new type of character, and every day feeling like a failure, riding only on my innate trust in Anthony telling me, “No, that’s right.” I was sure it was gonna be my first big epic failure. I hate to say this, but I was hoping, based on my own lame emotions, that it wouldn’t go. And then, I heard it was getting picked up. James Roday, who’s friends with all of USA, said, “Your show is gonna go.” And then, I saw the pilot and Anthony’s masterful guidance worked. I was like, “Wow, I would love to do this series.” It was a love fest. It was a family, from the get-go. We all knew that we were making something that was special and needed to be told.